(Vegetarian, gluten-free option, vegan option)
For a moment the other day, I had the fleeting sensation of having jacked into a different demographic, that of the current day yuppie – smug, urban, economically carefree, and oblivious. Because, at the end of an article I was reading on the relationship between the current economic crisis and Americans’ lunching habits, there was posed this question: Do you brown bag your lunch now more than you did two years ago? My answer was no. The economic downturn has not in the least impacted the course of my lunch hour.
Then I had to acknowledge that it’s only because I’ve brown bagged it nearly every day for the majority of my tenure in the workplace, and for no reason more so than this one: I like my food better.
Tell me what restaurant offers a lunchtime ramekin bubbling with Golden Sunset Tomato Tart with (giant fordhook) Chard and Fresh Mozzarella? Brown bagging it gives me the opportunity to relive a fine meal the day after. And, if I’m lucky, the day after that too. It guarantees me fresh produce in a fast-food culture where the best most chains can offer is a speckled banana or a dimpled orange of unknown origin. Then there are the jealous glances I get when I’ve got Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagna in the microwave.
Okay, and then there’s this: I work on a university campus, and if I leave mid-day there’s no chance I’ll ever find a parking spot when I return. So, most noons see me happily munching in.
But there’s another kind of “brown-bagging it” – the food that’s meant to be eaten right out of the bag. At dinner the other night, some friends were talking about Frito chili. Most often enjoyed at ballgames, they say, the concessionaire hands you a bag of Fritos and a spoon, and then unceremoniously dumps a cup of chili into the bag. This is a new one on me but I love this – probably because it somehow makes a case for the Frito Burrito. Of course, then there’s fish and chips, British style. During his years in London, Simon claims to have eaten the majority of his meals out of a makeshift newspaper envelope, with malt vinegar liberally splattered on top. I’ve also seen recipes for mini-loaves of bread, baked, buttered and bitten into, all in a Kraft paper bag.
The bag itself is the appeal, I think. It brings the same sort of illicit thrill that kids get when they’re allowed to eat outside even though there’s no picnic – the food just tastes better. Besides, it’s functional. Bags hold flavor in until just the right moment, when the bag is finally vented and the heady fragrance comes steaming upward. It’s a poor comparison, I know, but think of that smell that mushrooms out of a bag of microwave-popped corn. Intense.
So I thought, why not bake beans in a bag? I had some lovely, almost neon-green Old Homestead Kentucky Wonder beans just begging to be bagged. For substance, I threw in some Portobello mushrooms and a slice of veggie bacon (those of you who are gluten-intolerant and not opposed to meat will have to do the real thing; I suppose prosciutto would work well too. I wonder how the Bacon of Fish would taste here? Ah, that’s an experiment for another time). And for flavor, I collected cuttings of herbs from the garden and tossed them in wholesale. I was amazed at how deep the herby flavors were, then, even though I pulled out the stemmed cuttings before eating.
To create the steam that will cook your veggies, you need some liquid inside the bag. I experimented. In half of them, I used an old red wine that was sitting in my pantry – it’s probably safe to say, since this batch tasted fine, that vinegar would work (the wine was that old). For the other half, I used dry white wine. Whichever you use, wash your beans and shrooms just before putting them in the wax paper – the residual water, combined with the oil and wine, will be exactly what you need.
And before we get to the recipe, a bit on the beans. As I said, they’re Old Homestead Kentucky Wonders. Introduced in 1864, the Kentucky Wonder is a standard heirloom bean that has managed to hang on and remain commercially in demand – it’s even sold through Burpee. I got mine from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and they were one of the first green beans to be ready in my garden this year. The bean is also sometimes referred to as Texas Pole.
*Note: Morningstar Bacon is not vegan; for a vegan option, skip the bacon and use a dash of liquid smoke
Old Homestead Kentucky Wonder Beans in a Bag, with “Bacon” and ‘bellas and Herb Bundles
Makes 4 large bags
4 slices Morningstar Veggie Bacon (or, you know, the real thing if you don’t mind meat)*
10 ounces portabella mushrooms, sliced and stems discarded
1 pound Old Homestead Kentucky Wonder beans (or other fresh green beans)
Several sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and marjoram
4 bay leaves
Fresh ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Red or white wine (or mild vinegar)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Tear four pieces from a roll of parchment paper, about 16 x 16 each. Lay one piece of parchment paper on a work surface, and place on slice of Morningstar bacon just to the left of center. Add 3 or 4 mushroom slices and a handful of the beans (1/4th of them). Top with a couple sprigs each of rosemary, thyme and marjoram, and one bay leaf. Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and fresh pepper. Fold up your wax paper like an envelope, first folding up the bottom, then folding in each side, then rolling it over several times. Just before closing, sprinkle in a dash of red or white wine (or vinegar). Then close the bag by rolling over one more time and place it seam side down on a baking tray. Repeat with other three pieces of parchment paper.
Bake for 15 minutes. Serve immediately, but don’t open the bags until you’re ready to eat – the herb-scented steam will come rushing out as a prelude to the flavors that await.